Over the last couple of years, there seems to have been a higher rate of erecting billboards by atheists, humanists, and other secularists than previously. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, selected among the large number of Big Missives a subset of 18 “finalists” in a contest. You get to vote for five among these, and the billboard with the most votes wins.
Reading though the comments on that post, I was reminded of the billboard-related conversation that happened here in Minnesota after the Minnesota Atheists put up their billboard. Also, there was quite a controversy after the American Atheists put up a terribly offensive and racist (according to some) billboard.
The main criticism of the Minnesota Atheists billboard was that the color was garish, the type face was absurd (it looked like, but was not, Comic Sans) and the use of a cute baby picture was cheap. In other words, the Minnesota Atheist billboard looked just like one of those awful anti-abortion billboards we see all around Minnesota, especially Outstate (in rural areas). In fact, the Minnesota Atheists billboard looked almost like it was a parody of those Christian billboards. Which is why …. hey, wait a minute! Maybe it WAS a parody of those Christian billboards! Maybe THAT is why the color was garish, the font comic, and the baby cute!!!1!
Having it pointed out that the Minnesota Atheist billboard:
Was a parody of a typical regional fundie billboard:
… did nothing to slow or even adjust the criticism, which probably says more about the criticism than the billboards.
Most of those critiques were about style and design, and as I think I’ve made clear, they were hardly valid since the design was for the billboard to be a parody of a bunch of really horrid billboards. Nonetheless, those critiques are being applied to the other billboards on the Friendly Atheist site and they are generally reasonable. It may be that Atheists make relatively poor billboards. If that is true, there may be a reason for it. The typical billboard campaign probably exists outside of a broader marketing strategy. Sure, the Minnesota Atheists, American Atheists, etc. etc. may see themselves as having a broad strategy, but do they have a specific, yet comprehensive strategy for a particular campaign that may run across several media over a couple of years to meet a certain set of objectives? I don’t think so. I think these organizations have a larger plan and then they sometimes think up putting up billboards, and the billboard effort is a self contained campaign that is part of that larger organization-wide effort.
What may be needed is something in between. One of the more common criticisms of the billboards, both now and earlier when Mn Atheists put up theirs, is that the message was too complex, wordy, that the billboards were doing too much work. This may very well be the case. It seems to be that a lot of marketing campaigns have elements that do not attempt to reify the entire message, but rather, add to it bit by bit, allowing designers to have a more dramatic impact because they are allowed to use fewer elements in a more effective way. Perhaps the next “campaign” by any of these organizations should not be a billboard campaign, but rather, a broader messaging campaign that incorporates a number of media efforts including billboards. That of course would be far more expensive than a simple billboard campaign, but perhaps that problem can be addressed by getting the sundry and divers organizations that put up billboards now and then to coordinate their efforts a bit.
I would also like to point something else out: With the Minnesota Atheists billboard, there was a very open design and review process during which a number of people participated, but much of the post hoc critique came from people who did not participate, but rather, showed up to yell at us abut how the horse had gotten out, rather than coming by earlier to close the barn door. As it were. That may well have just been bad timing, but next time I think it would be worth adding extra effort to bringing in people with firm opinions early on. If they are part of the process from the beginning their wonderful ideas would be incorporated, and later, their critiques more meaningful.
In any event, you should go to The Friendly Atheist and vote for your top five. The winning organization gets a big prize of $100 bucks, which I assume comes right out of Hemant Mehta’s pocket, so thank you Hemant.